Spit on it and rub. That’s what players tell each other as code to ignore injuries, not complain and play on. That’s what the Nationals must do now. And it may be just what they need. They might remember how to play like a poised, tough, interlocking team as they did the last time this happened — in 2012.
With Bryce Harper out for two months, Ryan Zimmerman still absent for weeks and Doug Fister and Wilson Ramos on the disabled list a few more days, the Nats have a chance to turn injury into opportunity. If they focus on their strength, a superb pitching staff, and use their manpower shortage as a motivation to improve their big weaknesses — poor fundamentals and bad nerves — this could be a re-education.
“Sometimes good can come out of bad. Players step up and fill bigger roles. When the injured guys get back, you’re deeper and better. Everybody pulls together,” Drew Storen said. “This feels like ’12.”
On Tuesday in Houston, utility man Kevin Frandsen, playing in Harper’s left field spot, fielded a double high off the wall behind his back — apparently not even looking as he made a perfectly impossible snag that allowed a super-quick throw back to the infield to prevent a runner from scoring. Wasn’t it in left field in Houston where super sub Roger Bernadina made a game-saving catch in ’12? It is 100 games too soon to say there are real parallels. But it is time to say: These Nats have no excuses.
Of course, if they keep breaking like kindling, there’ll be a point when bad will simply be bad. But that junction has not remotely been reached. At 16-12, the Nats are on a 93-win pace. Their 12-deep pitching staff — which currently ranks second in baseball in Fielder Independent Pitching and first, by a wide margin, in strikeout rate — looks as strong as 2012’s rotation and better in the bullpen. Baseball-reference’s rating system, which combines run differential and strength of schedule, says the Nats have actually been MLB’s second-best team this young season, a hair behind the Atlanta Braves.
Besides, who says the Nats’ injuries are so bad? Fister is slated to start May 7, at roughly the same time Ramos is expected back. Zimmerman should return this month. So Harper is out until July. Too bad. Every team has injuries and nobody gets pity. As rough as the Nats have had it in April, it’s a fraction of what they ignored two years ago. Since most of that team is still on the premises, maybe they’d enjoy a refresher.
Now, Ramos is likely to miss about 37 games. In ’12, he missed 137 after blowing out his knee. Harper may be gone for 10 weeks. But two years ago, Jayson Werth snapped his left wrist and missed half the season. Now, Zimmerman may miss 40 games; then, Michael Morse missed the first 50. Fister has missed six starts. But in ’12, Storen, the star closer, didn’t pitch until the 90th game.
The biggest disappointment in the Nats since ’12 is the loss of a sense of team play, cohesion, focus on details, the ability to pick each other up and do it smiling. What happened to those guys?
Such a sense of identity is not acquired by edict, hiring a new manager or making a trade. It grows into existence one clutch hit, comeback win and unexpected hero at a time. Quite a bit of that has already arrived this spring, with seven come-from-behind wins, beginning with opening day. But it’s been obscured, for now, by Harper’s failure to run 90 feet and an analysis of Manager Matt Williams’s over-aggressiveness.
In ’12, bench players Steve Lombardozzi, Bernadina, Tyler Moore and Jesus Flores had 1,129 plate appearances and a rookie, Harper, became an unexpected regular. This year, however, the players who are emerging are not just helpful role players like catcher Jose Lobaton (.735 on-base-plus-slugging, not far from Ramos level) or Frandsen (.714).
Danny Espinosa seems on the way to resurrecting a fine career; that would give the Nats infield options and configurations they thought were lost. Tanner Roark may establish himself as an utterly unforeseen rotation piece. Aaron Barrett adds a piece to the bullpen. Almost unnoticed, Storen, only 26, has a 1.24 ERA and minuscule 0.828 WHIP in 33 games since returning from the minors last year with his mechanics adjusted and a sinker-slider-change-up repertoire that may be the best of his career. Anthony Rendon, moved by necessity to the vital but troublesome No. 2 spot, may be an emerging star.
Pundits and fans naturally look in the rearview mirror. What they see is missed playoffs last year, a 1-5 early April rollover to the injured Braves and tension between the Nats and Harper, whose run-’til-they-toe-tag-you approach has rubbed off on the team more than their knowledge has matured him.
The view through the windshield is always what really matters. That’s never clear. Perhaps the Nats’ flaws will be exposed when they play contenders like the Dodgers, A’s, Reds and Rangers. However, it’s just as likely that a very different Nationals story comes into focus: Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Roark, all pitching well now, are joined next week by Fister and backed by a seven-deep bullpen with a 2.14 ERA.
So far, bad luck and bad fielding has partially disguised this staff. Stats like batting-average-on-balls-in-play and defensive efficiency say that everything the defense tries to catch falls just outside its reach. That luck reverts to the mean — and usually quickly. Has the Nats’ emphasis on scientific defensive positioning actually dropped them from 18th to 28th in DEF? Has Ian Desmond, runner-up for the last two Gold Gloves at shortstop, suddenly become an eight-error klutz? Believe it if you want. I’ll take the other side: The Nats start catching everything in the tip of the webbing and it’s mistaken for “playing better.”
Ever since a certain ’12 playoff loss, the Nats have specialized in avoiding good opportunities. Much of that seems tied to the tension of expectations. Injuries change the perception that surrounds a team and can also alter the way that club sees itself. Some of that pressure may be off now.
When your starting lineup includes Sandy Leon, Stephen Souza Jr., Frandsen, Moore and Espinosa, as the Nats’ did Wednesday, it’s easy to think: We better pull together.
When a team makes few stupid mistakes and supports superior pitching by executing the simple basic plays, they usually win a lot — even if they have some glamor injuries. And they enjoy it, too.
The Nats used to know how to do that. Will they again?
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.